Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Growing Pains: Pleasures and Pressures of Living in a Developing City

"Piim! Piim piim!"
A few seconds pass and "Pim! Piim!! Piiim!" again.
I turned around to see an approaching taxi cab, the driver making gestures at me with his hand to find out if I needed a ride. Uncommitted, I continued on the sidewalk only for the cab to slow down beside me and the driver probing a little further: "Drop?" (Local slang for "do you want to charter a ride?").
I shook my head and he sped off towards the traffic light some distance away. Almost immediately, my ears were again inundated with the growing sound of "Piim piim, piim piim! Piim piim, piim piim!" as a second taxi cab drew closer, the driver dancing on his seat to the loud beat of Fuji music (a popular drums-rich Yoruba music genre) and looking in my direction for the signal to stop but receiving none.
I laughed and muttered to myself, mentally shaking my head, "What do we do with these aggressive and unrelenting Abuja taxi drivers who never give up and never keep quiet until you are seated in their car as a passenger!”
At the traffic light ahead, I could see that some traffic had built up. A handful of street hawkers could now be seen meandering fluidly through the waiting cars, parading their wares, knowing that this window of opportunity was open, only a few more seconds:

"Gala! Gala! Gala!" (a popular brand of beef sausages), rapped a young lad.
"Pure water!!", another echoed behind him.
"Punch? Guardian? This Day?" (Popular Nigerian national dailies), an elderly man enquired from motorist to motorist.
I watched, amused by the activities of these motorway trading opportunists. 

The traffic light timer was already counting down to green and the cars, revving up to go. And suddenly, it hit the airwaves!
"Piiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiim", "Paaaaaaaaam", "Poooooooom" a loud disharmony of blaring horns, as the cars behind seemed to scream at the lead cars to move on.
"Comot for road now!?!" ("Get out of the way!" In pidgin English), the taxi driver in one of the cars behind could be seen, head, left shoulder and arm, poking out of his window, flailing as he shouted at the car in front. And then, in a moment, the cars all roared past the traffic light, almost as one mighty chain of cars, closely paced behind and beside one another. To the casual on-looker you would think a crash was inevitable in the ensuing rush. Gradually, however, the frenzy faded as the traffic gridlock untangled.

Scenarios like these describe the road craze that often occur at very busy Abuja crossroads and intermittent traffic stops. The unending dramas that play out on these ‘road theatres’ are often packed with: suspense (a lead car breaks down just as those tailing it are all revved up to go); pure molten lava of rage (screams, curses and loud blaring of horns); comedy and entertainment (a break-dancing traffic warden, enjoying himself, and almost inadvertently easing off tension as he marshals motorists in an artistic fashion through a colourful maze of automobiles headed everywhere.)

Furnished with good roads, driving in Abuja could be notoriously bullish! And so, to curb speed and irresponsible driving (a lot of which both of-age and underage children of wealthy individuals and their fun-seeking tag-alongs, account for) at intersections – a major cause of accidents here - two rows of speed breakers have been laid just before traffic lights at major junctions! This intervention, however, seems to create problems of its own. Often drivers just roll over the bumps at high speeds to avoid being caught by the red light!

My evening stroll today is on a 2-lane dual carriage way, which feeds into a 10-lane boulevard at its far end. It got me thinking about how rapidly Abuja had changed from an almost sleepy city 16 years ago when I first became a resident to today's bubbling mega city with its associated challenges. New structures and buildings keep coming up (sometimes, right where ‘new’ ones came up just a few years ago).
Expanses that were, once, virgin land have all but vanished. Standing here, looking from the bus stop known as ‘Finance Junction’, a few metres away from the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) office in Wuse District Zone 7 (the National Agency for ensuring safety on Nigerian roads), the figure of a crisscrossing ‘fly-over’ blocking the full view of the Abuja velodrome and the saucer-shaped National Stadium paints the horizon at the left end of this boulevard. The rotating Wonderland Ferris wheel also stands embedded in the foreground of a big semi-oval rock mass.
A road diversion could be observed in the distance due to ongoing construction work on the new Abuja railway. A little closer, a pedestrian bridge runs across the 10-lane carriageway while farther down to the right end of this expressway another ‘fly-over’ bridge rises over the popular Berger roundabout. At the ascent of this ‘fly-over’, a secondary road branches out, leading directly to the Berger roundabout. A steady stream of speeding vehicular traffic both ways, hypnotizes the eyes as every now and then the escort siren of some VIP or the other, breaks the monotony of sound from passing cars.

Apart from vehicular traffic, there is the notable stream of pedestrians, particularly, the young men, lined up at the shoulder of the road, holding cream-coloured plastic containers filled with petrol and waving at motorists to stop by and buy. Business is definitely brisk for them at this time, as the city groans in the pains of acute fuel shortage. While petrol stations are overwhelmed by long queues of waiting cars, You can get as much as you want to buy from these roadside vendors provided you call the right price.

The rhythmic flow of traffic is also interrupted from time to time as daredevil pedestrians dash across the speedway to the hooting disapproval of on-coming traffic, even though a pedestrian bridge stands just about 50 meters away, few, if any use it at all. Many prefer instead to not only take the dangerous route of crossing the highway, but also trespass the mesh-wire fence raised to discourage pedestrian crossing.

Berger Roundabout is perhaps Abuja's numero uno intersection. Whatever part of the city you are in and need to take a bus ride someplace you’re not sure how to get to, if you can only find a bus conductor shouting 'Berger, Berger, Berger!' you just might be in luck, as Berger roundabout is a 'confluence' of 4 major roads that connect the main districts of the City:
To the north is the commercially-minded and trading hub, Jabi District;
To the South, the mix business and residential Wuse;
To the West, the predominantly banking, trading and residential Garki and:
To the East, the highbrow corporate and reserved residential, Maitama.
The transformation of Berger roundabout is simply amazing. This was once, a free-for-all, rowdy and crowded open-market and bus terminal. The makeshift market has since been closed and a green park now stands in its place. However, elements of past rowdiness come to play from time to time as traffic authorities and city officials continue to play 'cat and mouse' with street hawkers selling on the converging roads and commercial bus drivers indiscriminately lifting or discharging passengers on the roads.

The irony is that a beautiful bus stop decorated in the logos of Glo (a mobile phone network operator and national carrier) stands mostly unused along the Maitama leading east end. At rush hours in the morning or close of work in the evening: motorists form illegal lanes on the road shoulders to beat traffic hold up, taxis and bus drivers lift and discharge passengers on the flyover ascent and descent, VIP convoys and bank bullion vans blare their sirens all adding up to the production of a panoramic eyesore! But this is not exclusive to Berger, as similar chaotic scenes like these are replicated around the city at rush hours. This disorderliness and seeming disregard for traffic regulations is really a source of concern and must be addressed more decisively by city officials.
Abuja roads cannot be said to have exceeded their carrying capacity by any means, it is rather an impression of traffic indiscipline created by stakeholders. As the city with the largest Federal Government presence, siren-blaring VIP entourage movement is also a growing cause for alarm. Quite often, VIP movement displays the highest and most blatant disregard for traffic lights, highway rules and other road users. They often harass other motorists out of the way creating chaos in traffic flow.
At any given time, conservatively there could be potentially about 200 siren-led VIP convoys on Abuja roads drawn from the Federal Executive Council, Body of Principal Officers of the National Assembly, National Judicial Council, visiting State Governors, top Echelons of the Military, Police, Customs, Immigration, Prison Service, Federal Road Service Corps, Civil Defense and Fire Service, and sometimes members and visitors of the Diplomatic Corps.
It is often a daunting task for emergency services like Police patrol cars, Ambulances, Fire fighters to easily navigate their way to areas of need, not to mention the bank bullion vans’ police escorts who intimidate motorists on the road with their 'stunt' driving. There is therefore the need to limit siren-led VIP escort movement to the President, Vice President, Presiding Officers of the National Assembly, Chief Judge of the Federation and President of the Court of Appeal, serving Service Chiefs and sparsely selected and authorized Diplomatic VIPs on occasion. Abuja is a city with world class infrastructure, its residents, visitors and tourists must endeavour to exhibit commensurate world class manners.
Cities can be said to be characterized by the attitudes they portray and the feelings they evoke in the visitor. They can be welcoming and accommodating or cold and unfriendly, clean and beautiful or dirty and irritating, exciting and fun, or dry and boring, modern and forward looking or conservative and historical.

Most cities are an evolving mix of both the new and old and are often a reflection of the people who live in them - their vision, their love, their styles, their passion, their pastime, their oddities and craziness, their bonding or lack of it with the city and also ownership or otherwise of it.

This holds true also for Abuja, the beautiful Nigerian valley land city surrounded by eye catching rock formations and ranges, notable among which are the giant torso-like Aso rock and equally imposing Zuma rock. Unlike the news-drawing Nigerian National Assembly building mimicking it from the front as you look from the popular Eagle Square or the Aso Villa hidden in front of, but overshadowing it in popularity as the seat of government.
The Aso Rock is unarguably one of Abuja's unsung treasures. This 40-year old city is indeed in a hurry to grow but also still trying to discover its niche besides being the capital city of Nigeria. As one from which so much is expected, it is a city under pressure to deliver and perform. It is therefore necessary that the little things that make big statements and advertorials regarding city-appeal and beauty are not overlooked by city administrators.

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